A Year-End Chat with Harold Bloom
By MICHAEL KRESS
Harold Bloom, one of
our towering public intellectuals, speaks—thinks—in full paragraphs, with the
illuminating and often funny tangents and asides that fill his books, editing
himself as he goes along, referencing his previous work (often verbatum) and
others' books and poems (ditto). Jesus and Yahweh is bound to be one of Bloom's most controversial works, and he is
prepared for whatever onslaught comes his way—and in his interviews is
confident enough of his views to display little concern with smoothing the
feathers he is bound to ruffle among believing Jews and Christians.
Writer Michael Kress recently spoke to Bloom in an illuminating phone
Tell me a little about why you decided to write a book about Jesus and
I think I've always intended to write such a book, as far back as I can
remember. Indeed, I think I say somewhere in the book that when I wrote the
first draft of what six years later—in the summer of 1967, when I was turning
37—I wrote the first draft of what eventually became, in January 1973, a rather
small book called The Anxiety of
Influence, and it had a section on the actual relation as compared to the
stated relation of Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, with the New Testatment, as the
largest single instance of what I called the "anxiety of influence" I
knew. That section, I remember, went on to a character and personality analysis
of both Jesus and Yahweh.
But it had begun a long time earlier than that, when I was just a small child
in the Bronx, and we grew up all of us speaking Yiddish in that
neighborhood. I had been born in the United States but didn't know any English
because none was spoken at home or in the streets. We were a solid enclave of
some 600,000 Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews. But I still remember one
day that a missionary came to the door with a Yiddish translation of the New
Testament. There's a kind of grim joke in that, isn't there? In the mere
existence of it. It shows the hopelessness of the Christian quest to convert
the Jews. Indeed, it reminds me of Andrew Marvel's splendid seduction poem,
"To His Coy Mistress":
"You should refuse, should you choose, until the conversion of the
Jews." But which implies the lady will eventually yield.
In the book, you talk about both
Christianity and rabbinic Judaism as reactions to the times—what was going on
in Palestine at the time...
Yes, but another oddity of the book—and already I've gotten some negative,
shall we say, normative Jewish reactions to this—is that I point out that,
contrary to what we normally think, Judaism, what we call Judaism, is a younger
religion than Christianity. St. Paul did not inaugurate Christianity. He was
converted, probably in Aleppo, though he says his experience was in Damascus,
by a Hellenistic, probably Jewish-Christian community, to a doctrine that
already existed. He became the apostle or great propagandizer of it, the
traveling salesman for it, as it were.
But what we call Judaism does not begin until the second century of the common
era, with the rabbis clustered around Akiba and Tarfon and Ishmael, and the
great sages. And the great Hillel is as much as their creation, for all we
know, since we have no independent historical evidence that links them to him,
the great Hillel is as much as their creation as Jesus is evidently the
creation of those who came before Paul—Paul, and the authors of the New Testament.
I am curious about your use of the term
Yahweh to refer to the Jewish god. Again, something that is not normative.
I am talking about the actual text of the Tanakh. There are thousands and
thousands of times in that text the name Yahweh occurs. Since it is not pointed—it
doesn't have vowels—and so we will never know how it's pronounced, but the YHWH—called
Tetragrammaton in Greek—is there. It became a tradition very early on among
normative Jews that this was the unspeakable name of God, and you substituted
Adonai for it, or you substituted Elohim, the plural form, or you substituted
all kinds of things. But nevertheless, that is the name, and the name seems to
have been inaugurated by the J writer or the Yahwist when Moses is going to be
going down into Egypt rather reluctantly and says, "They'll laugh at me.
Who shall I say has sent me?" and gets the massive punning answer,
"Say that ehyeh asher ehyeh has sent you," which is invariably
translated as "I am that I am" but actually means "I will be that
I will be" or to put this into English so it is coherent, "I will be
present wherever and whenever I choose to be present."
And as I grimly keep repeating throughout the book quite deliberately, that
necessarily also means, "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I
choose to be absent." And there's a lot more evidence in the last 2,000
years for the absence of this personage than the presence.
Yahweh certainly doesn't come across as
a sympathetic character...
You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition
of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like
him? He's very bad news.
Yet you seem to have a certain
He interests me greatly. I say toward the end of the book, I would like to tell
him to just go away, since he's gone away anyway, but it isn't that easy. I end
the book on a rather wistful note. There may be a little irony in the
wistfulness, but I well remember the last sentence in the book, and it's very
deliberately the last sentence, speaking of Yahweh it says, "Will he yet
make a covenant with us that he both can and will keep?"
You also describe a certain playfulness
or impishness that you seem to have a soft spot for.
There's a kind of scamp in there. But he also goes violently crazy as he
leads the Israelite host in that ridiculous, mad 40 years [of] wandering
through the wilderness, trekking back and forth. He gets crazier and crazier
and the poor things get crazier and crazier. One of my favorite passages in the
book is what I am talking about—the ridiculous attempt on the part, first, of the
neo-Platonizing Jews like Philo of Alexandria, and then later the high
rabbinical sages, to get rid of what they might call the anthropomorphic
element and say he isn't a man, he isn't a human, he doesn't do certain things,
since it's made very clear that he's walking down the road frequently, that
he's picnicking, that he's doing this, that, and the other thing, that he's
burying Moses with his own hands, he is closing the door of the Ark with his
own hands, and so on.
At one point, I enjoy myself with the rather impish sentence in which I
say, "You have to conceive of him as marching around with a group of
rabbis and sages trailing after him and saying, 'He's not walking.'"
The great Akiba himself, his favorite name or word for the unpronounceable
Yahweh was "Ish," which is just "man." Yahweh is not a
theological God. Theology is Greek, as the word itself indicates. Yahweh is a human,
all-too-human, much, much-too-human God, and very scary. He is irascible, he's
difficult, he's unpredictable, and he himself doesn't seem to know what he is
As for Jesus, there isn't any single Jesus. There are Jesuses and Jesuses
and Jesuses and Jesuses. Indeed, here in the United States, it seems to me that
every professed Christian has her or his own Jesus, just as every supposed
scholar in that mad, quixotic quest (rather pathetic) for the historical Jesus, they always come up with a reflection of
themselves in a concave mirror, a kind of distorted image of themselves.
I am curious, in light of the anecdote
you tell in the book and that you mentioned earlier, about the Yiddish Bible
and the futility of the Christian missionary effort, what do you think of the
growing relationship today between evangelical Christians and Jews?
It is absurd to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition. I say this in spite
of the political good that this does for the State of Israel or the remnant of
Jewry. Nevertheless, it is an absurd fiction. There is no Judeo-Christian
tradition. There cannot be. What is at the heart of the book is a very grim
fact: As you and I talk to each other at the moment, we are in a cosmos in
which there are one-and-a-half-billion people who call themselves Christians.
One-and-a-half-billion people who call themselves Muslims. There are 14 million
self-identified Jews. That takes care of Yahweh on the one hand, and that takes
care of—since we're outnumbered a thousand to one by each—that takes care
of.... ah, never mind. I don't want to say the obvious. That's part of the
problem with this book. To say the transparently clear and plain gives offense.
You mention in the book that Yahweh,
because of the huge disparity in the number of Jews and Muslims in the world,
Yahweh mostly lives on in the Muslim Allah.
The closest thing that we have—since the Christian God the Father isn't
even a pale shadow of Yahweh, and the Adonai, or whatever you want to call him,
the rabbinical, normative of what is now Judaism, has much more in common with
the God of Deuteronomy or of the so-called priestly author strand in the Torah
than the original Yahwistic portion—it is a very strange irony, even though
he's by no means identical, but that nevertheless that Allah, which is itself
an Arabic variant on Elohim, of the recital or Koran, has on the whole more
features in common with the original Yahweh, though he's by no means identical
And what are some of those
Total authority, total demand for submission. Remember that Islam is a word
meaning submission, and the Muslim is one who submits to the supposed will of
God. It's the assumption of total authority.
To switch gears a little bit, can you
explain your affinity for Gnosticism?
Gnosticism is not, of course, a religion, it is a tendency. And I have always
had a deep affinity for it, yes.
Can you explain what Gnosticism is and why you find it attractive?
The Gospel of Thomas, which is proto-Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic or a mixture of
Gnosticism and ordinary Christianity, shows it pretty clearly. Or what I would
call "the American Religion" is clearly a Gnosticism: The belief that
the best and oldest part of you, the most inmost part, is no part of the
created world at all, that it is part of the original Godhead; the belief that
except for that spark or breath hidden deep within the lock of the self and
very hard to get at, that otherwise all divinity consists of is a good God who
has either been exiled to or has exiled himself to the outer spaces, out beyond
our cosmos, and he cannot get in touch with us, and we cannot get in touch with
him or it or her or whatever you want to call him.
Look at the epigraph of my book. There is a hidden purpose in that. It's from
William Blake's "To the Accuser Who Is a God of This World." And
since the book was already going to be offensive enough, I left off the first
stanza, which goes: "Truly, My Satan, thou art but a Dunce,/And dost not
know the Garment from the Man./Every Harlot was a Virgin once,/Nor canst thou
ever change Kate into Nan." And then I quote the second stanza: "Tho’
thou art Worship’d by the Names Divine/Of Jesus and Jehovah,"—which is the
spelling error that Yahweh becomes—"thou are still/The Son of Morn in
weary Night’s decline,/The lost Traveller’s Dream under the Hill." There's
the essence of a Gnostic's stance. A god of this world, worshipped under the
names of Jesus, Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, call it what you will, God the Father,
the Holy Ghost—which by the way is nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, it's a weird importation—they
are cons who rule a ruined world.
And the third part of this belief is that what we call the creation was itself
a destruction. That the creation and the fall were not two events, but one and
the same event. That's it in a nutshell.
And what is your affinity for it?
To me, it makes imaginative and spiritual sense. And indeed, I think it has
been the burden of the greatest poets of the last several centuries in all the
Since the Jewish High Holidays are here,
I am curious how in your mind the ideas of forgiveness and repentance differ in
Jesus and Yahweh, or for that matter, Yahweh and the Jewish God.
On the basis of the only two versions of Jesus in which I can put the
slightest trust—that is very slight—the original Gospel of Mark on the one
hand, where he's a total enigma, and the Gospel of Thomas on the other, there
is no gap between Jesus and Yahweh. Jesus is not a Christian. He may be a
Christian to Mel Gibson, but he is not a Christian to Mark. He is a faithful
follower of Yahweh alone.
But this mercy and forgiveness bit is common to both rabbinical Judaism and to—at
least it's given lip service in—Christianity. I haven't seen much mercy or
forgiveness in the historical record of Western Christianity, which is
unbelievably ghastly and horrible. Always was, always will be. Look at the
Christian Right in the United States today. Look at the Rev. Pat Robertson.
There's a Christian.